Baseball as a Road to God
Professors John Sexton & Mike Murray
May 7, 2012
The Road to God as Personal Experience of Meaning
As the semester ends, I ask myself what have I taken away from the course? What are the insights that I genuinely can carry forth into my religious life and community? In this paper, I will attempt to highlight what I believe to be the most important insights I take away this semester by highlight significant moments in several texts we have encountered. Using baseball, I will argue for the need for personal and direct experience of the sacred—something organized forms of religions are increasingly becoming alienating from as they become institutionalized and material interests take precedence.
Religion for many people is something to be avoided or seen as silly. How have the ideals, beliefs and stories of what many of us take to be sublime moments of encounter with the divine become so sullied and associated with abuse and hurt? I believe the professionalization of baseball is insightful for understanding why many people fear the abuses of religion in an institutionalized form. This is through the loss of underlying meaning of those religions which can also been seen in the commercialization of baseball whereby it loss the simplicity of the play element that Johan Huizinga highlights in Homo Ludens. Huizinga writes of how “with the increasing systemization and regimentation of sport, something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost”. The transformation of the simple play element into commercialized franchise points to this transformation of a personal, meaningful endeavor into established structures that become barriers to individualized experience especially through the substation of meaning for profit.
This commercialization of baseball is reflected in a statement Hal Chase “who was unarguably the best player on the rooster of the Highlanders (or Yankees, as the newspaper came to call them” makes in the middle of Eric Greenberg’s The Celebrant. Chase says in response to the idea of him being a philosopher:
No. I am a professional ballplayer. ‘Professional’ means only one thing. You do it for money. But the bastards don’t let you go where the money’s best. They strap you with the reserve clause and tie you up for life. The National Commission may be bread and butter to you, but it’s cost me thousands. If I’d signed two years before I did, when the leagues were at each other’s throats, I’d have made three times the money. I hit twenty points over three hundred my first full year, and that winter they sent me a contract that knocked me down five hundred dollars. ‘Sure you did all right,’ they said, ‘but the club didn’t win.’ As if it was my fault! I’d been busting my ass all year. Well, that’s when I saw my way clear. I’m a professional ballplayer. I do it for money, and if there’s more money in losing than in winning, shit if I care..
This passionate statement from Chase highlights how the struggle of an individual is not valued when material interests take over and become the sole determining factor for what is considered to be success. It is a reflection of our larger society’s obsession with material things as the highest thing to which we can aspire to do define ourselves by. It tells of how owners try to take advantage of talent instead of letting it shine for its own sake. This then has an effect on the players themselves, transforming heroes into losing their ideals and entering the ‘rat race.’ Unfortunately, too many of our religious institutions have given into this goal as well where it is only about increasing their territory, authority, or power and not about allowing people to experience the ineffable.
William James writes of the division of the religious field into institutional and personal religion. “In the more personal branch of religion,” he writes,
It is on the contrary the inner dispositions of man himself which form the center of interest, his conscience, his deserts, his helplessness, his incompleteness. And although the favor of the God, as forfeited or gained, is still an essential feature of the story, and theology plays a vital part therein, yet the acts to which this sort of religions prompts are personal not ritual acts, the individual transacts the business by himself alone, and the ecclesiastical organization, with its priests and sacraments and other go-betweens, sinks to altogether secondary place. The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul, between man and his maker.
It is through this personal encounter with questions of our own feebleness, our being alone and empty without meaning, that this personal relationship with the sacred can emerge based on experience and reflection. The quote from James also points to a major contention towards religion or God today. If through baseball or love, or really anything that makes us realize there is more to life than the material, we wish to have a relationship of appreciating and expressing awe at the ineffable, it is usually institutional barriers that lead people not to continue this quest for meaning. People are rightfully angered by the abuse that occurs at the hands of people who claim to know what God’s will is for certain and think they can pass judgment on peoples’ standing with God. People, I believe, largely want to have that personal relationship with God that gives soulful meaning to one’s lives. What they don’t want to deal with is other peoples’ biases and psychological baggage that hinders them from their being able to communicate with their personal maker.
I think James insight of this division of religious experience is crucial to understanding how just as the primacy of the play element has been largely lost in commercialized baseball, so too has the essential experience of encountering the sacred has been clouded and even stomped out in institutionalized forms of religion. Primacy is placed instead on dogma, on repeating what individuals who are seen as giants, saints, great scholars or even mystics of the past have said. But if we do not have experiences of our own, repetition of books of creed, are not sufficient for truly having a relationship with God. I recently have been struggling with this in a recent lecture by an esteemed scholar of Islam. There was indeed beauty and awe at just being able to see that here has a remarkably accomplished elderly scholar who continued to teach the religion and even prayed standing. But in his lecture, his statement encouraging people to believe in God and not have any doubt, fell short of encouraging people to experience the sacred for themselves. As I reflected about this with a friend, we exclaimed how just telling people not have to doubt and to have faith does not help for a true religious experience. People must be encouraged to go on a journey to investigate and question themselves in light of their existence, in light of the world we live in, and the events that surround us.
It is through reflection upon the events in our lives that push us to question ourselves about what we stand for. This is also a personal encounter where we must decide for ourselves based on our understanding of what is moral and in congruence with our ideals rather than falling back to the institutions of our society. It can make us question the institutional forms of practice in our society by reflecting upon the shared humanity of others in a very personal way. Here, the history of baseball also provides a lesson that can inspire us to do question ourselves regarding how we often fall short of our professed ideals as in the story of Jackie Robinson and the racism that prevented blacks from joining and being one with white baseball players. In Pete Hamill’s Snow in August, Rabbi Hirsch “seemed to have chosen baseball as his key to understanding America”. This is particularly insightful for us in speaking about the accessibility of God to people and how institutional barriers are set up to exclude marginalized figures and communities from having that access. It is also insightful for taking us from just theory and feel-good-religion and ideals to think about the concrete situation of black people in America. Theologically, this is an important move to make—to take our religious ideals of shared humanity, wishing for each other what we wish for ourselves, and putting it to the test of lived reality. It is to push us to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving side of such cruelty and intolerance. It is to do what Michael did when he
tried to imagine what it must be like to be Robinson…What was it like to wake up every goddamned morning and see that skin and know that some shmuck looked down on you just for that?...How could that be? Michael’s anger rose in him and then faded. If I’m angry, he thought, sitting here, still white or pink, how must Robinson feel?
This feeling must push us to act in the world, seeking aide from the Divine, but also carrying out our responsibility God asks of us. It is to “trust in God and tie your camel” as the famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad goes. It calls us to act in the world voicing dissent against injustice rather than faulting people for not believing enough—the mistake I believe Hamill engages in as he tries to wrestle with the problem of the evil, particularly in light of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Rather than absolve ourselves of responsibility by appealing to the ineffable, we must set out as Red Barber did “to do a deep self examination. I attempted to find out who I was. This did not come easily, and it was not done lightly”. Just as Barber engages with this process of question who he is and what he stands for, and puts the ideals he had learned about being concerned for others into action in the case of Jackie Robinson, so too must we confront the questions that face us as we grow and interact with others. Not just others, we must engage with our own beliefs and examine them, especially when we find our religious ideals being twisted to exclude certain people or to privilege others.
Keeping an eye on the abuses of institutionalized forms of religion does not have to push us to completely dismiss religious traditions as having nothing to offer us in the modern world. It is rather to appropriate the tradition and make it relevant and meaningful to us in our context. Here we can see the value that so many characters in our readings derived from connecting themselves to a tradition or story larger than themselves. It shows us a fallacy of modernity where we are supposed to be uprooted from traditions, left to figure out meaning on our own, supposedly through the saving light of reason with the Enlightenment hope of cutting away all superstition and myth. As Eliade points out, this process where repetition and cycles of life are “emptied of its religious content, necessarily leads to a pessimistic vision of existence”. This I believe is an accurate description of lives without meaning beyond survival or the amassing of wealth.
Perhaps it is a modern obsession with facticity that pushes believers in the modern world to become literalists and do away with metaphorical understanding of scriptural narrations. I imagine pre-modern people were much more comfortable with telling stories to derive meaning from rather than being obsessed with whether they happened or not. It also shows us how scholars of scripture who go on for pages in the commentaries of scripture about where a certain incident took place, what they were wearing, eating, etc. often miss the point of the story. It is like the novice ballgame spectator who only focuses on the ball. It takes experience and wisdom to develop a sensitivity to notice and appreciate what is happening in front of one’s eyes. As Gideon Clark remembers his father telling him, “Gideon, there’s a lot more to watching a baseball game than keeping your eye on the ball.” The value of spiritual masters, in the wisdom we might benefit from those who have gone before us, lies when people like Matthew Clark genuinely want to share that experience and teach us how to experience it for ourselves by paying attention to the symphony on the field that is a metaphor for life.
If we think of religious experience as related to aesthetics, we see the limitations of an Enlightenment obsession with rationality and science—with that which can be measured and calculated. We can then recognize something humanity may be losing as it sees itself to be progressing from the shackles of myth that is seen as false instead of as providing meaning. It is like Robert Coover’s description of Cuss in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. whose “mockery encapsulates him, cuts him off from any sense of wonder or mystery, make life nothing more than getting by with the least pain possible…such a life seems less than human.” Such a void makes one not appreciate the richness of life and substitutes mere survival if not enjoyment with living a meaningful life. Although this may seem to be primitive, as Huizinga writes, “In this sphere of sacred play the child and the poet are at home with the savage. His aesthetic sensibility has brought the modern man closer to this sphere than the ‘enlightened man of the 18th century ever was”. The feelings that inspire “beauty, fright, and mystery” are not necessarily products of a rational analysis of a piece of artwork or of nature, but rather, it is with reconnecting with the play element in us from childhood, that we rekindle a part of our humanity that the modern world is often at odds with.
Something that accounts for the alienation we face when trying to experience the sacred directly and personally is our distance from the natural environment of the world. We increasingly live and work in urban spaces with apartment buildings, mass produced furniture, food, clothes, where it is unthinkable to trace where these products are coming from in terms of natural resources and the work that has gone into making them. There is distance modern people experience from the seasons of the year as well as the alternation of day and night. Baseball, A. Barlett Giamatti writes, is special among the sports because “The game was outdoors, on grass, in the sun. It began at winter’s end, and ended before frost. It made the most of high skies, clement weather, and the times of planting and growth.” This connection with nature provided a way to sit in front of a beautiful green lawn mixed with earth. It is a telling metaphor for our attempts to hit a ball into the horizons instead of remaining on the ground. Thus, “Baseball is at home in the natural world, mindful of its own fragility.” This can be read as also acknowledging our limitations and feebleness before the awesomeness of the natural environment as Rabbi Heschel highlights. This reflection upon the universe can push us out of our slumber to think there is nothing greater than ourselves, to a higher being or presence who we are indebted to.
By having standards more lofty than that of the judgment of other human beings and material success, we embark on a journey to God. It is to lift our eyes to heavens, rather than merely what others may think of that we can undergo a path of renewal and transformation even when we make mistakes and slip up. These mistakes may cause us to lose our careers in organized baseball, as it did to Roy Hobbs, but still hold out a promise for making amends and possibly getting right with God. I see The Natural as the struggle of a man to finally break out of the corrupt greedy structures of institutionalized baseball to start over again even if it costs him “Miss Paris” and thirty five thousand dollars. We need hope and meaning to be able to make choices that going beyond material considerations. For Hobbs it is the belief in love for more than himself that ultimately motivates him. “You must win, Roy,” Iris tells him. “Win for our boy.” Iris points something of meaning to Hobbs that is greater than all the riches in the world. It is giving hope and meaning to future generations as represented in their son. As she said earlier, “Without heroes we’re all plain people and don’t know how far we can go.” Meaning and significance is thus given through aspiration that Hobbs can embody for others. Yet it is through his efforts at trying to be an inspiration, and not necessarily his success in doing so, that is the standard of success if we take the personal approach of valuing an individual by their intention. Institutional and commercial standards do not have room for this sort of ‘measurement.’ An attentive to the sacred can help us appreciate the efforts to be true to a higher calling even amidst our failures. This is only through an intimate knowledge of the struggles of an individual and judging through eyes of mercy rather than a cold calculating analysis of the ‘hard facts’.
When we went to Citi Fields earlier this month, a classmate remarked, “I wonder how the field would look without all the advertisements.” It was a profound reflection I thought and I looked across the stands for the numerous ads that on display for the duration of the game. It is a metaphor for how bombarded we are with distractions that prevent us from appreciating what is in front of us. For this reason there truly is wisdom in the injunction to take time out of our daily monotonous routines to undergo a pilgrimage or journey for purification and retrospection. This push us to think about how perhaps we are approaching faith and religion from the wrong door if we try to simply get at it through an appeal to rationality and facticity? Perhaps, the road to God, like love, is about openness to experience. This is what baseball can offer us when we try to understand the thrill and love for the game that it inspires in a child who identifies with players and a team and casts his hopes with the Dodgers for example. There is more to life than simple calculations. If it were just about calculations, the newspaper stats would have been sufficient for Doris Goodwin. But there was something in the experience of her watching the game and keeping score herself with the hope of pleasing and sharing in the joy of recounting the game to her father that made it worthwhile. What I take away from the class is that only through a personal relationship with the ineffable, where we recognize the limitations of the rational process, and allow ourselves to experiences that do not show up in graphs and charts, but nonetheless are real, can we approach God. We must encourage people to embark on personal journeys to find themselves and find their relationship with God through mystery and awe rather than appealing to accept religious dogma without experiencing the sacred for themselves.
Barber, Red. "On Jackie Robinson." The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told. By Jeff Silverman. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2001.
Coover, Robert. The Universal Baseball Association: Inc. J Henry Waugh, Prop. [S.l.]: New American Library (A Plume Book), 1968. Print.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. Print.
Giamatti, A. Bartlett. and Kenneth S. Robson. A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1998. Print.
Greenberg, Eric Rolfe. The Celebrant: A Novel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1983. Print.
Hamill, Pete. Snow in August. Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike, 1997. Print.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man; a Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955. Print.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens; a Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Modern Library, 1936. Print.
Kinsella, W. P. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Print.
 Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens; a Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955, 197.
 Greenberg, Eric Rolfe. The Celebrant: A Novel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1983, 172.
 James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Modern Library, 1936, 17.
 Hamill, Pete. Snow in August. Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike, 1997, 242.
 Hamil, Snow in August, 179.
 Barber, Red. "On Jackie Robinson." The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told. By Jeff Silverman. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2001, 133.
 Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959, 107.
 Kinsella, W. P. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986, 248.
 Coover, Robert. The Universal Baseball Association: Inc. J Henry Waugh, Prop. [S.l.]: New American Library (A Plume Book), 1968, 252.
 Huizinga, 26.
 Giamatti, A. Bartlett. and Kenneth S. Robson. A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1998, 56.
 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man; a Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955, 112.
 Malamud, Bernard. The Natural. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952, 219.
 Ibid, 148.